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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Conservatives Sleep with the Lights On

This one goes out to all my right-wing pals out there, and you know who you are. If you're tired of the inflammatory Liberal rhetoric embedded in your child's favorite picture book, then I have the thing for you.

Help! Mom! There Are Liberals Under My Bed is the book conservative parents have been seeking. This illustrated book the first in the "Help! Mom!" series from Kids Ahead is perfect for parents who seek to share their traditional values with their children, as well as adults who wish to give a humorous gift to a friend.

Hailed as "the answer to a baseball mom's prayers" by talk radio host Melanie Morgan, Liberals Under My Bed has already been the subject of coverage in The Wall Street Journal and Harper's magazine. Written by a self-proclaimed "Security Mom for Bush" and featuring hilarious full-color illustrations by a Reuben Award winning artist, it is certain to be one of the most talked about children's books of the year.

Regardless of where you fall on the political continuum, the idea of Ted Kennedy under your bed should scare the bejesus out of you.

Monday, July 30, 2007

A Rose By Any Other Name

According to my birth certificate, I am Anthony Mario Lucchese. My father is Catholic and when my parents had trouble conceiving, they prayed to Saint Anthony for a miracle. I can only assume that he is the patron saint of awesome, because here I am. Mario is my father's name and his father's name. My mom flat out refused to have a III, and for that I thank her. I get enough Nintendo induced flack as it is. Lucchese, of course, is my Old World Italian familial. It is also one of the big names in organized crime and boot manufacture, though I'm sure not by the same folks. My friends call me Tony.

What's my point, you might inquire? Simply that I am going to be standing in front of a classroom in a few years, and I'm wondering what name to write on the board.

When my parents divorced (evidently not all their prayers were answered,) I was but six years old. Within a few years, I had two new step-parents, whom I love dearly. From the beginning, I called them by their first names. When I was twelve, I got my first summer job, and I worked predominantly with adults. I called all of them by their first names. For as long as I can remember, it just seemed natural to call all people, regardless of age, by their first name, assuming at least a passing familiarity. I know many people find this disrespectful. My father, for one, still has my friends call him Mr. Lucchese, even though they are all adults. But I am not a Mister; I'm just me.

As I grow older, and find myself reaching the other side of the generation gap, it still feels unnatural to be anything but Tony. I have worked with high-school age kids for several years now, and I allow them to call me by my first name. I have never had any trouble commanding respect. Do I really need to add what feels like an artificial title now? Do I have to be Mr. Lucchese, or can I leave that to my dad?

I understand that some students might feel uncomfortable calling me Tony, and for those I'll accept a more formal address. But for the rest, I'm inclined to allow anything that isn't vulgar or disrespectful. Coach, teach, chief, oh captain my captain, or just plain Tony. Will my school allow me to do this? Are there rules that I must follow? What does everyone else do?

Just something on my mind.

When Good Science and Bad Reporting Collide

The University of Virginia and Harvard recently released the results of a study comparing student science achievement in high school and college. My news feed-reader has been full of articles, in which reporters skilled in selling newspapers take a crack at scientific reasoning. This recent one from the Washington Post is particularly irritating to me, as it suggests that debates over secondary science curricula are now superfluous.

I love math. I believe mathematical education is absolutely imperative for all students at all levels. But I've got to give some props to science, too. The study simply found that students' experience in a particular science (biology, chemistry, physics, etc.) was not a strong predictor of success in another of those sciences, whereas math excellence was a predictor for success in all science fields. Excluding the fact that science is little more than applied math, let's look at the logic of this finding. The sciences have always been taught separately from one another. The distinction is somewhat arbitrarily related to scale. These smaller chunks are easier to teach and to learn, but all of them are necessary for a complete understanding of nature. Mathematical thinking is necessary to all three, but then so is reading comprehension, so these findings seem somewhat immature to me. While the results may prove useful to college admittions departments, I don't think they ought to be used to determine high school science curricula.

As of 2005, the percentage of high school graduates who enrolled in post-secondary the Fall after graduation had risen to 70%. That's high compared to our parents' generation, but it still leaves 30% who don't attend. Of course, there is some fuzziness in the numbers. Some students will take time off in between and some of those who attend will drop out after only a semester. But the point stands. Not all kids go to college. I would really like those people to have enough science reasoning to make their way in the world. They need to have enough bio to make sound health decisions, or to pass judgment on stem cell research and the like. They need the chemistry to understand the harmful effects of pollution. They need the physics to understand why to keep a safe following distance and not to drive too fast.

Both science and math are all around us. Our public education system is supposed to give kids all that they will need to be good citizens, and that has to include a healthy dose of math and all sciences. Excluding the latter in favor of the former may help out college professors, but it does our students and our nation a great disservice.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Like Warm Apple Pi

This one came to me via one of my tutoring students. Robots, wizards, rugby shirts, and one kick-ass transcendental number.

Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil

Yesterday I did something that I hoped I would never have to do. I deleted a comment on this blog.

Pencils Down was created to help me be proactive in my own education. I was tired of waiting around for school to start, and I knew there were plenty of experienced educators out there that I could learn from immediately. And so, this blog was born. Since its inception, I have tried to maintain a congenial dialog, and although the conversation is far more one-sided than I would like (hint to all you lurkers out there,) I feel that I am achieving my goal. I have learned so much already about what it means to be a teacher and about the state of the profession, and I haven't had a single formal class yet. So many of you have become virtual mentors of mine, and I thank you.

As a life-long proponent of free speech, I fully support the right to voice opinions that conflict with mine. I relish the friendly debate that follows and I never take offense. Discussing issues with the opposition helps me to crystalise my own beliefs, which is why the Perpendicular Bisectors roll exists. This is where I link to blogs whose authors, more often than not, are posting things which I either can't relate to or vehemently disagree with. But it's that contrast, that chance for learning, that I crave and why I'm blogging in the first place.

So when I deleted that comment, I did it with a heavy heart. It was a comment on one of the Danika McKellar posts and it was extremely sexual in nature. The commenter, who I know in real life, was trying to be funny and to get a rise out of me. If the comment had been made in a face-to-face conversation, I would have thought nothing of it. But it wasn't. It was written here for all my readers to see, and it was in direct conflict with the idea of the post, which was that women can excel at math just like men, that they should be respected colleagues and not just sex objects. The comment, while lurid, was auto-biographical in nature. I have no doubt that its author was telling the truth, but since he posted anonymously and with no ability for you to follow to his homepage, I felt that the statement led nowhere intellectually and was potentially offensive. So it went the way of the dodo.

Was this a mistake? I don't know, you tell me. What do you all do with your blogs? Is it okay to leave crass language and potentially offensive comments up? Or is the kind of censorship I employed justified?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Angel of Death...Or Serial Killer?

For those of you who aren't familiar with this story and are therefore both confused and disturbed, let me explain. A cat in Rhode Island is making news with his alleged ability to predict the exact time that human beings will visit the litter box in the sky. Doctors feel confident enough about his track record that they are writing him up in the New England Journal of Medicine. But it seems to me that they are putting the rosiest spin on the facts. Here is what we know.

Oscar came to live at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center as a kitten two years ago. Since then, he has been spotted making rounds each day, sniffing and nuzzling patients of the third floor dementia unit. At some point, caregivers noticed that he had an apparent tendency to curl up on the bed of the soon-to-be deceased. The correlation has reached a point where hospital staff begin phoning family members as soon as he lays down. What does that conversation sound like, I wonder?

"Mr. Smith, this is Dr. Green calling from the Steere House. You'd better get over here. No, the doctor hasn't seen your father yet today. No, his vitals appear normal. Well, you see, it's Oscar. No, not the Grouch. The Cat. Yes, I said the cat. He's sleeping with your father as we speak. Yes, that is serious. We'll do everything we can until you arrive. Please hurry, and you're welcome."

I'd just like to say, first of all, that if Oscar really is a kitty clairvoyant, then he is certainly hedging his bets. It isn't like he goes to health clubs or figure skating competitions to be Nostradamus. He's predicting death in a dementia unit of a nursing home! I'd say his odds are better than average. But I don't think that's what's actually happening. No, I want to be the first to come right out and say what everyone else is only thinking. Oscar has been the last visitor of some 25 patients in the last two years. Some say that makes him and angel; I say it makes him a suspect. I wonder if anyone has tried removing him from the unit and seeing what happens to the mortality rate? There are many well documented cases of medical serial killers. Involuntary euthanasia, they call it, and Oscar fits the profile to a tee.

So before we go nominating this feline for sainthood, I think we ought to bring in the forensics team. I'll bet we find more than trace elements of deadly dander in the victim's lungs.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better

Embedded in all the comments about Danika McKellar, I encountered a recommendation from Ron Avitzur over at A Programmer's Apology to read this article. It's written by a woman actively engaged in a mathematics career and is addressed to a young girl in a mostly male programming class. It is a brilliant letter and I would reproduce it in its entirety if I weren't worried about copyright ethics. Definitely check it out.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Girly and Fabulous

Advance copies of Math Doesn't Suck by Danika McKellar are starting to circulate and the reviews are mostly positive. The general consensus seems to be that anything that gets young girls excited about math is a good thing. There has been a little bit of criticism of her marketing style. She is definitely exploiting her classic good looks (let's face it, she is pleasing to the eye,) and she uses topics like shopping and make-up to explain math concepts. Although her style may offend certain hard-core feminists or misogynistic men, neither of those demographics fall in the target audience. Aetiology over at ScienceBlogs has an interview with McKellar, where she puts forth the idea that it is possible to enjoy fun "girly" things like fashion and jewelry, while still developing an appreciation for math and science.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

I'm from "Away" (Myth of the Local School)

For the first time in my life, I am residing in a state with a strong sense of self. Home-grown Mainers (or Maniacs to some) are from Maine first and America second. Like Texans and Californians, there is a definite identity there, and either you're born with it or not. The state has a thriving tourism industry and welcomes emigration from other states. But I'll never be a Mainer. Now and forever, to the natives I will be from "away."

"Away" is another country, another world in fact, that begins at the state line. It encompasses everything on the planet sans these lobster-laden shores. I have friends who say that even though they were born here, their parents were not, and therefore many locals still consider them to be foreigners. I'm not offended by any of this. It doesn't affect me in the least, and I am quite happy in my new home. I just don't understand it. Never in my life have I identified so strongly with my state of residency. Maine is the third state I've called home, but I've always considered myself an American. Lately, even that feeling of nationalism is dissipating, gradually being replaced by a general brotherhood of man philosophy.

Of my five closest friends, four of them attended K-12 schools in multiples states. Like many students, we moved from suburb to suburb, school to school, and barely noticed the difference. Sure there were new friends and new houses, but the landscape was pretty much the same. The same retail chains and restaurants, same pop music and movies, and more or less the same lives. That seems to be the way of things for anyone born after 1960. Moving is a fact of life, and it becomes unfathomable to identify so strongly with a city or state that is merely a temporary home. The evidence is more than anecdotal. According to the US Census, each year 45% of Americans change their residence. Many of those are school age children.

Also brewing here in Maine is a debate over local control in the schools. There are 5 autonomous public school districts within 10 miles of my apartment. That means that each district has to shoulder separate administration costs, separate transportation costs, and myriad other costly byproducts of isolationism. And for what? So each municipality can maintain local control at the cost of cultural continuity? The problem is that it doesn't work. Local schools are an illusion, a nostalgic remnant of a bygone era. If almost half of the students and parents are from "away," what sense does it make to hold steadfastly to localism? Our communities are revolving doors, as Americans migrate more than any citizens in the developed world. All our efforts to maintain local control only guarantee that children of mobile families suffer the maximum disruption and risk of setback in their education that the system can muster.

There are many valid criticisms of NCLB, and I have complained loudly and often about many of its mandates. But I have never complained about the implied move to centralization. The days when individual communities could legitimately argue a need for unique curricula are over. We must set national standards, so that students in different states can reasonably expect to be studying roughly the same thing at the same time. There is no need to have a truly federalized system, where inside-the-beltway experts make unilateral decisions for the rest of the country. But there's no reason why we can't agree on specific requirements that all American students must meet. Take such common signs of government as the driver's license or license plate. Each state has a DMV that oversees the specifics of licensing, but all tags are the same size and shape, and each ID has the same information. There is a standard there that allows for easy interstate travel. Surely our children's mobility should be at least as trouble free as that of our automobiles.

Even excluding the tradition of legal national immigration that is the backbone of the American dream, the relocation pattern of US citizens is mercurial to say the least. We are a nation of discontents, always looking for greener grasses, and our students would suffer much less if the school system would stop erecting so many fences.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Demystifying DNA (Part II)

A while back I posted a critique of DNA evidence based in part on my own understanding of the science and also on an intriguing article of Keith Devlin's. Usually, I get a comment here or their. Either "agree" or "disagree," but rarely anything as informative as the one I recently received to this post.
Two points: Devlin has disavowed the column that you quoted extensively. In a later column he makes clear that he knows better, and claims that the earlier column was meant to represent the kind of misunderstanding that a lay person might have. My web page is one of many analyses showing that there is, contrary to the apparent (but disavowed) message of Devlin's early column, nothing "scary" about the observed data on partial DNA matches in the Arizona CODIS database or anywhere else.

Second, while 15 quadrillion may be an unrealistic number in various respects, your criticism that it is contrived because it represents inter-ethnic matching chances is not correct. It represents the typical matching chance for two randomly selected unrelated persons of the same ethnicity. If we drop the artificial "unrelated", yes the chance increases but not notably unless the randomly selected people happen to be close relatives (nephew, son, brother).

Charles Brenner, PhD
Forensic mathematics

I recommend reading through his links. He makes a pretty thorough rebuttal of Devlin's (and my) arguments. Although, I would just like to say that my primary point, that DNA is statistical evidence just like all other evidence, still stands. It should not be used by itself to convict. Only in the presence of other evidence do we see anything remotely close to "beyond a reasonable doubt.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

How'd I Miss This?

Netflix, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I just finished watching Equilibrium starring Christian Bale and Taye Diggs. I recommend it to any sci/fi fan and I'm not sure how it managed to slip by me back in 2002 when it was released. The action sequences are well choreographed, even if the plot is fairly trite by my standards. If I were to describe it as Minority Report meets 1984 meets Fahrenheit 451, you'd pretty much know what you need to know.

Still, there was one very original element called the "gun kata." It is a take on traditional martial arts training katas adapted for close quarters firearm combat. It is described thusly.

"Through analysis of thousands of recorded gunfights, the Cleric has determined that the geometric distribution of antagonists in any gun battle is a statistically-predictable element. The Gun Kata treats the gun as a total weapon, each fluid position representing a maximum kill zone, inflicting maximum damage on the maximum number of opponents, while keeping the defender clear of the statistically-traditional trajectories of return fire. By the rote mastery of this art, your firing efficiency will rise by no less than 120%. The difference of a 63% increased lethal proficiency makes the master of the Gun Katas an adversary not to be taken lightly."
I doubt that such a tactic would work in real life, but the statistical nature of it was intriguing. A master of gun kata employs defensive maneuvering based solely one statistical modeling. He would presumably move the same way regardless of how many opponents he faced or where they stood. Of course, if it were truly statistical, one would expect the odd missed shot, which of course our hero never suffers. It certainly makes for a visually impressive sequence, though. If you like the genre, you ought to check it out.

Are You God at Math? (Part II)

Although I am currently a happy resident of New England, I grew up in the heart of the Bible Belt. At my high school college fair, the infamously conservative Bob Jones University had a prominent booth. My friend and I decided to have a little bit of fun with their representative. Two of them, both guys, went up to the booth holding hands and asked about residence hall assignments. The BJU rep was too stupid to realize he was being made fun of, telling them that his school was not for them. It seems there is no end to BJU's efforts to curtail the social and intellectual freedoms of their students. In addition to restrictive dress codes and curfews, BJU has gone so far as to outlaw inter-racial dating. Hard to believe, but true.

Now it seems they have begun attacking our beloved mathematics. They have produced a textbook for Christian schools that embeds religious propaganda with algebra and geometry. Seriously, folks, I know that God Created the Integers, but this is ridiculous.

Too Good to Pass Up

I've only been registered for classes for a few days, and already I'm reaping the benefits. USM is hosting a Texas Instruments T3 workshop for future teachers of secondary mathematics. Its purpose is to discuss the appropriate use of technology in the classroom. I'm sure it will have a decidedly pro-tech slant, but it still should provide some interesting insight. The real bonus is that for my $20 registration fee, I get a lunch and a complimentary TI-84 graphing calculator. I had planned to get by with a non-graphing scientific calculator, but I can't resist a deal like this one.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Question Everything

It's no secret that I have a particular fondness for statistics. What I love most about it is its counterintuitive nature. It's the one branch of mathematics where the "right" answer may completely defy common sense, so that we have to trust our rationality over our gut feelings. According to a 2004 talk by Dick De Veaux entitled Math is like Music, Statistics is like Literature, stat sets itself apart by being the only math field which requires students to be subversive.
We haven’t evolved to be statisticians. Our students who think statistics is an unnatural subject are right. This isn’t how humans think naturally. But it is how humans think rationally. And it is how scientists think. This is the way we must think if we are to make progress in understanding how the world works and, for that matter, how we ourselves work.

While I think De Veaux makes a great point, I think his love for alliteration may have led him to a less than accurate title. In the talk itself, math (other than statistics) is compared to systems like music and chess, in that they are built on a relatively simple set of rules that create apparent complexity through combination. Chess is the better example, I think. It's rules are concrete and universal. It is played the same way in Central Park as Tienanmen Square. The "rules" of music, as pirate Captain Barbosa might say, are more like guidelines. The rules vary from culture to culture, and even when we limit the discussion to Western music, many composers have gained fame through the years by breaking the rules.

Nevertheless, the crux of the argument is true. Statistics, like literature, requires practitioners to temper algorithms with life experience. The best and most simple example of this is the Monty Hall problem. When it originally appeared in Marilyn vos Savant's Parade article, it sparked a firestorm of criticism from mathematicians. These experts of numeracy had fallen victim to their instincts, and in doing so, provided a counter-counter example of the confusing nature of probability. Let me explain.

We all know people that genuinely believe in luck. These are the people that kiss the dice before rolling past Park Place. These people are experiencing a glitch in their pattern recognition software. But there are also people who have studied just enough stat to be dangerous. They are the ones who know that a random die is as likely to come up heads as tails, and yet persist in believing that the probability of rolling heads is increased after a long string of tails. Here we are seeing the same glitch in software, even in people trained in the rules of the game. Often times, the better you know the rules, the more apt you are to misinform yourself, as in the case of vos Savant's critics. These learned men (and women, but mostly men,) lambasted the article for misrepresenting probability, and they were quite rude about it. They claimed that each of the three doors had an equal 1/3 chance of hiding the prize, and that switching doors was a poor tactic. They were, of course, wrong, and Marilyn was vindicated. The naive application of a standard algorithm produced an erroneous answer.

What I have always found particularly amusing is that the Monty Hall system is extremely simple. There are only three doors, after all. It is quite easy to arrive at the correct answer by counting out the set of possible outcomes. But instead, mathematicians sent hate mail to a woman who had correctly applied experience and skepticism to a problem rather than merely rote formulas. It is this skepticism that makes statistics so interesting to me. It requires you to question everything. You have to know how the numbers can lie to you, and you will never get by with just memorizing algorithms. You have to think, then rethink your conclusions, and sometimes scrap the whole thing and start from scratch. It truly is like writing a great work of fiction, only instead of creating fantasy it uncovers reality.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Your Door is a Jar

There's a survey posted over at Math Teacher Mambo (incidentally as I'm writing this my lovely girlfriend is attempting her rendition of the Math Teacher Mambo) about the difference between a jar and a bottle. For such a simple question, it's garnered a lot of high-minded debate. While the topic is fairly innocuous, it has struck a chord with me. I have been wondering a lot lately about the words I hear bandied about, both in traditional media and on the blogosphere. Words like liberal, conservative, constructivist, reform, tracking, accountability, to name only a few. They are used frequently at the sites I visit, yet I often wonder if the author means what I think is meant by those common words. If we can't agree on the difference between a bottle and a jar, how can we be sure any of us really understand anyone else?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A New Beginning

I have been looking forward to today for a long, long time. Next to the first day of classes on September 4, Orientation has represented the concrete reality of returning to school. I have been harassing the faculty of USM for almost a year now, asking annoying questions, and trying to set my own timetable of events. Each time, they have assured me that everything will happen in due time, and that if I just wait until Orientation, all will be well. That day was today.

I left the apartment around 7am for the 15 minute walk to campus. USM is split between three campuses and fortunately, both the math and science departments are here in Portland, just over a mile away. On most days, I can walk or bike, thereby avoiding parking headaches and fossil fuel usage. Registration began around 7:30, beginning with immunization records and student IDs. As I've mentioned, I got a tetanus shot last week, so I was all set on the medical front. I was happy that the photos were taken right away. On my last Orientation Day, back in 1995, my truck broke down on the way to UTK, forcing me to jog the remaining 2 miles. As you can imagine, I was in quite a state of disarray upon my late arrival and the first thing they wanted to do was take a picture. Thus, my haggard, sweaty moment was immortalized in laminated permanence for the next 5 years. Today's photo, which I may share with you, was much better.

There was a brief tour of campus beginning around 8, which I took advantage of. There are approximately 6 buildings, so it wasn't that much of a tour. Still, it was nice to have something to do while I was waiting for the presentations. My tour guide was a senior majoring in English. Let me just say this. I hope the Math department produces more competent students, because she couldn't find a coherent sentence with both hands and a flashlight. By the time she was done, I actually felt dumber for having listened to her.

Back inside, I was forced to endure 2 hours of the worst Powerpoint extravaganza I have ever seen. These people had less than zero design awareness. There was the typically unnecessary animation, which perfectly complimented the poor layout and asinine color pallet. Seriously, why would you place crimson font on top of royal blue background and honestly expect it to be readable? Fortunately, they all provided handouts that restated their entire presentation, and most of it was directed at traditional students anyway. I've done all this before. I pretty much get it already.

Finally, I got to meet with my adviser, who I had already cajoled into doing an informal transcript review last Fall. He vaguely remembered me, which is to say he was convinced of my motivation. I showed him the tentative course schedule I had designed and explained my desire to retake Calculus just to be on the safe side. We were completely on the same page and I was registered before I left his office. I kept my plan to continue working full-time to myself. I wasn't in the mood to here a time management lecture. I am well aware of how many hours there are in a day, thank you. Anyway, here is the official itinerary.

Calculus A
Structured Problem Solving: Java
Intro to Probability
General Physics I
Physics Lab

Total Hours: 16

It's going to be tough while working so much, but as I said most of it is review, so I think I will be all right.

Next it was on to lunch, which was great because I had skipped breakfast and was famished. I made small talk with a few folks and my story of moving to Maine on foot trumped all other anecdotes. There were a few clubs with tables set up, but neither the Outdoor Club, nor the Ultimate Frisbee intramural team was there, so I left empty-handed. I remembered a poorly publicized library tour at 1pm, so I headed over there. As it turns out, other people don't love libraries as much as I. There have been tours scheduled four times a day during each day of Orientation, and I am the first student to partake. There were some parents who toured yesterday, but other than that, just me. I had a personal tour from the head of the department, which even included perusal of the architect's model for the new addition housing the expansion of the map library, and the new University Commons building going up next door. All in all, well worth my time.

And so, it's even more official. Now I just have to wait another month and a half before classes start. I am so excited that this is finally happening. I hope that excitement carries me throughout the next three years. Lastly, I recall promising earlier a look at that student ID photo, and I hate to go back on my word. So here it is.

Wait for it.

Wait for it.

Promise fulfilled.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Brand X

So I've been in kind of a funk lately. I think maybe it was that tetanus shot I had. Whatever the reason, I've sat down at my computer to blog half a dozen times in the last three days and I have ended up deleting every bit of what I have written. None of it really seemed worthy of your attention. As has often been the case for Pencils Down, inspiration came from the incomparable Dy/Dan.

Dan's been posting a lot lately about the art of presentation. Graphic design is a big thing for him, as it should be, and he is rightfully proud of his work. While other teachers are hastily throwing slides and worksheets together, he carefully plans out everything from font size to color gradients. His work is clean and visually appealing, and I have every reason to believe that it complements his lectures perfectly. He posted a rambling list yesterday, a "brain dump" if you will, which used the term "branding" several times. I posted a comment that he completely ignored, which I can only assume means one of the following things. Either a) he thought I was kidding, b) he thought it was the dumbest idea he had ever heard, c) he is on a roll with his own thoughts and doesn't have time to delve into new things, or d) he was so completely blown away that he will require days to recover.

Regardless, I was quite serious and I feel the need to elaborate my point. Branding, not the kind done by ranch-hands but by ad execs, is how companies market their products. They spend obscene amounts of money designing, testing, and refining those brands. They consider appearance, audience, slogan, placement, and just about everything else. You can be sure that they leave nothing to chance. That's the exact kind of attention to detail that teachers need to have when designing their lessons. Everything from overhead projections to handouts, posters to pop quizzes, needs to reinforce the "brand." Now to extend the comparison even further, and this is where I may have lost Dan's attention, how can this branding be pushed beyond the classroom?

Madison Avenue has been making a killing in the last decade by marketing directly to children. In the past, kids younger than say ten were virtually ignored. The ads targeted parents instead. At some point, some genius with questionable ethics realized that you can separate customer from consumer. If they can make your children want something, they have won the battle. Kids have more weapons in their arsenals that most parents can deal with. Beginning with "Mommy please" and ending in an inevitable tantrum, kids are going to get what they want a fair amount of the time. I've been reading a book entitled Buy, Buy Baby which explores this marketing tactic in depth, including possible harm it is causing our youth. There was a particularly poignant piece of rhetoric that compared these baby targeting ad execs to pedophiles, at least in terms of their ability to manipulate our youth for personal gain with little to no guilt or compunction. Maybe that's why I responded so strongly to Dan's somewhat innocent post. I am wondering how teachers can use that type of marketing in their classrooms.

What if you could take that brand that you have carefully crafted and fine tuned, and extend it into the world? Just as the half-hour Dora the Explorer cartoon sells books, videos, cereal, dolls, and who knows what else, can we find a way to take our own brands viral? As bloggers, we know better than most how easily a meme can spread. The Web is sometimes more conducive to that than real life. I'd be willing to bet that many of us get more professional respect from colleagues on-line than off. So what if it were possible to achieve the kind of product placement that Coca-Cola or Pizza Hut has in our schools? What would that look like?

It could be as simple as using a distinctive font that students associate with you and your brand. Then as the font catches on throughout your school, it takes with it a small reminder of your lessons. Or perhaps we could be even more diabolical, as I mentioned in my comment to Dan. You could subtly share your brand with other teachers or school organizations, turning SGA posters or dance committees into your unwitting accomplices. Maybe there's even some way to merchandize.

I'm obviously not an ad exec, and I know my thesis is pretty thin. But it seems to me that as long as we are manipulating kids, we might as well use the power for good, instead of evil.

Curious Curve

How would you rate the fit of this curve?

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Dark Energy and Missing Socks

I finally know where all those missing socks have gone. They're hiding with the "dark energy" in curled up spatial dimensions that are smaller than the Plank length.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Spring Breaks and Tetanus Shots

Today, I have an appointment to get a tetanus/diphtheria shot for school, which is by far my least favorite needle. I always manage to tense up my arm, causing the muscle to hurt for days. Anticipation of the pain has put me in mind of events which led to my last tetanus booster. I'll share them with you now.

Let's get in our time machine and travel back...back...back to the bygone days of 2000. The "millennium" had come and gone (depending on how you count,) the panic over Y2K proved unwarranted, Michael Jordan had retired (again,) and then virgin Britney Spears was still both attractive and on the pop charts. I was set to leave on what I thought would be the last Spring Break of my life. Myself, my then girlfriend, and our two best friends were headed to Charleston, SC for a week at the beach, and we hoped, a week of fun.

Charleston and I have a somewhat troubled history, and though I believe in neither luck nor karma, I still visit the city with a certain amount of reluctance and trepidation. My fears were to prove well founded. Both vehicles we took on the trip broke down, costing us money that our college student wallets could ill afford. Several of us got deathly ill with what was either food poisoning or the mother of all stomach bugs. And then there was the coup de grace, the final straw, the perfect end to a perfectly miserable week.

We were playing Frisbee on the beach. South Carolina beaches, I should note, are not the beautiful white sandy beaches you may imagine. They are littered with shells, gravel, and all manner of coarse, sharp flotsam (or is it jetsam?) As I mentioned in my Random Eight list, I possess the most tender feet known to man. If I step on anything unexpected, I reflexively divert all of my weight away from that leg, which often times causes me to fall down. So of the four of us, I was the only one still wearing tennis shoes. The others were teasing me unmercifully, and so finally I removed my protective footwear. Not wanting to show signs of pain, I gritted my teeth and ran faster than ever. As I sprinted to catch a wayward toss, I felt what I can only describe as something biting by toe.

I began immediately hopping and cursing. My companions, not wanting to pass up an opportunity to kick a friend while he was down, renewed their cries of tenderfoot. But I got the last laugh, so to speak. As they approached, I had an opportunity to inspect the source of the pain. Attached to the "index" toe of my right foot was a barnacle of some sort. Now as far as I know, barnacles rarely attach themselves to human feet and never with such instantaneous ferocity. My confusion melted into horror when I realized that the barnacle was attached to a rusty nail, which had completely skewered that toe and begun penetrating my big toe. To make matters worse, the nail had an odd bend and what appeared to be a tiny cousin of the first barnacle at the other end.

"Awww...did the little baby stub his toe?"

"There is a fucking nail THROUGH MY TOE!"



(Silence, followed by glorious vindication.)

"Holy shit, dude! Do you want me to help pull it out?"

And thus our tale is more or less concluded. I did not need any help, as I slowly pried the barb from my toe. I would, however, require the aforementioned tetanus shot. Not having health insurance, the shot and examination came from my pocket, which was really the icing on the cake. It was one of the most painful and consequently, memorable Spring Breaks of my life. Perhaps, subconsciously, I am returning to academia just for a shot at a Spring Break do-over.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Phoning It In

Evidently some software developers at the University of Haifa have created what they are referring to as "Mobile Math Labs." Essentially their software can be installed on any cellular phone, turning it into a graphing/solving calculator. The hope is that students will be able to combine other phone features, like video, to create and perform math experiments. In effect they will be able to create and analyze videos a la Dy/Dan with a single hand-held device. Of course, some will see this as just another way for lazy kids to cheat on their tests. I'll leave it for you to decide. The software is available for download now.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Citizens vs. Civilians

My last post spoke a lot about my belief that a good education, while not necessarily an inalienable right, is certainly in the best interests of democracy. That train of thought led me to the civic structure of Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, in which there is a distinction between a citizen and a civilian. Science fiction isn't just about warp speed and time travel. The best authors of this genre have posed some fairly intriguing moral questions, and Heinlein is one of the best. In the novel, or the Casper van Dien flick, a citizen must give a minimum of two years military service before gaining the rights to vote or hold public office. Civilians choose not to accept responsibility for the body politic and forfeit those responsibilities and privileges.

The novel is set against the backdrop of a perpetual defensive war. In America, the Vietnam War effectively ended any tradition of forced military service and as long as we don't step on too many toes, we probably won't be engaged in a defensive war anytime soon. The situation is different in the Middle East, where Israeli boys and girls must serve in the military for three years and Muslim youth volunteer in droves to be suicide bombers. We may complain about the erosion of our freedoms, but those of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are seldom really at risk. They are, in fact, inalienable. I do not believe that citizenship should be.

I think citizenship should be a privilege and that it should be earned. Just as naturalized Americans are forced to pass a test that shows they are knowledgeable about our history and civic structures, I think everyone ought to similarly prove their worth. Currently, the rights to vote, serve on a jury, or hold public office are available to anyone who has successfully not died for a particular number of years. This has always seemed somewhat arbitrary and a little dangerous to me. Many of us know both 16 year-olds with whom we would trust the most complex decision and 34 year-olds who can not be trusted to properly wipe their own ass. I believe we need a higher standard, one that will ensure that those choosing to participate in the system are qualified to do so. There must also be a way to voluntarily opt out, as Heinlein's civilians have done.

Although this scenario will never come to pass, the very idea shapes my feelings on public education. As I said in the previous post, I believe it should be voluntary and designed toward producing informed citizens.

Cross-Purposes and Collegiate Complaints

As I struggle to find where exactly on the political scale of math education I reside, I have to constantly question many things that I once took for granted. One of those things relates to the transition from secondary to post-secondary education. One of the latest tactics that the traditionalists are employing against the reform math programs involves pressure from college professors and deans. They insist that these new programs are not preparing students adequately for the collegiate curriculum. The latest article comes out of Pennsylvania, where a new integrated math program in the public schools is forcing many colleges to adapt their methods.

The first step of problem-solving is to actually determine if a problem exists. In this situation, Pennsylvanians have to determine what they feel the primary purposes of education are, and then see how high college preparation is on the list. Conveniently, their state code lists a Purpose of Education section, and nowhere in it is college even mentioned. It does say that
Public education prepares students for adult life by attending to their intellectual and developmental needs and challenging them to achieve at their highest level possible. In conjunction with families and other community institutions, public education prepares students to become self-directed, life-long learners and responsible, involved citizens.

It wasn't that long ago when most students did not go on to college. University was for the rich white men and everyone else either got a job or got a husband. Fortunately, those days are gone. There is much more equality of opportunity in education and everywhere else. But the rise in post-secondary enrollment creates new issues and debates. Here we see colleges parroting similar complaints of the business community, that essentially the public schools are not operating with their particular agendas in mind. Frankly, I don't see a problem here.

Education is important. That much is clear. It is difficult to get ahead without obtaining new knowledge and skills. Learning is necessary to grow and adapt with a system. But I believe that burden falls largely on the individual. It is each person's choice whether or not to educate themselves. No teacher can teach a student that refuses to learn, and many great men and women have been self-taught. Although there is no "right to an education" in our federal constitution, the Framers certainly realized that an informed citizenry is a prerequisite of democracy. They supported and encouraged each state to develop public education guidelines, so that every child wanting to learn had an opportunity to do so. Not everyone took advantage of the programs, but enough did to make it worth the expense. And there is quite a bit of expense. We spend as much on education in the US as we do on defense, believe it or not. Unfortunately, the complicated administrative bureaucracies swallow most of that funding before it can trickle down to the actual classrooms. Now we are stuck with a system that is hugely inefficient, stupendously expensive, and perpetually maligned.

I firmly believe that we are trying to do way too much. There are so many goals that we aren't really reaching any of them. Let's put aside cultural integration, job training, and even college prep until we can get the simpler goal of
"self-directed, life-long learners and responsible, involved citizens." To that end, I think that the two goals of any curriculum, mathematical or otherwise, need 1) teaching students how to teach themselves, and 2)providing them with skills required to be a good citizen. That may very well mean something other than what is considered a "traditional" math curriculum. For example, when in the voting booth or in the jury box, what field must you better understand, statistics or calculus? Yet stat is usually taught as an afterthought in most Algebra II classes.

Colleges can complain all they want. There objections/recommendations are duly noted. But there mission statements are fundamentally different than those of public education, and vice versa. Even now when most students will go on to some form of post-secondary program, the focus of K-12 must remain on civic responsibility rather than collegiate complaints.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Let's Be Unreasonable!

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman (1903) "Maxims for Revolutionists"
Irish dramatist & socialist (1856 - 1950)

Jeff Foxworthy, FOX Broadcasting, and the Road to Hell

I suppose it was inevitable. As soon as I saw the first promo for FOX's Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader? I knew that eventually I would be compelled to blog about it. The breaking point came when I turned off a DVD I was watching and found myself confronted with the show already in progress. Foxworthy and a female contestant were debating the merits of algebra.

Before I go into the details of the particular question, let me say a few general things about the show. The execs picked the perfect host for the show. The game is about stupid people and the prepubescent, so it is only fitting that the host be an idiot whose voice has yet to change. Riding the wave of redneck chic as far as he can, Foxworthy has proven that smarts are dead weight in entertainment. As to the contestants, well, let me reprise a comment that I used to make back when Sajak and Trebec were king and queen. What would be the point of putting a Jeopardy caliber contestant on Wheel of Fortune? In a game which is basically turning Hangman into a spectator sport, there is no fun in watching someone solve the puzzles too fast. Instead, you need to stack the deck of stupidity. Such is the case with Fifth Grader. We are nearing the end of a long history of dumbing down that began with the $64 Million Question and filtered through Jeopardy, then Millionaire, and wound up here. I can only assume that someone somewhere is pitching the next hit to the CW network entitled Are You Retarded?

Now back to algebra. The question asked was "if y=3x and 3x=12, then what number does y equal?" There are two points to be made here. The first is that this is only algebra in a loose sense. It is an example of the Transitive Property, which requires no calculation or manipulation to solve. Really it's simple logic. The term 3x could be replaced with thingamajig, whoosiwhatsit, or whatchamacallit without affecting the process in the least. The second point, and really the entire point of this post believe it or not, is in the woman's answer. She saw 3x=12 and said 4, the correct value of x. In a situation where she had every incentive to listen carefully and consider closely, she processed the question through her school algebra filter and out popped 4.

What are we to make of this? Clearly the contestant could perform the algorithms. She answered a different question correctly. Unfortunately, she had not learned to think mathematically. Similar questions appear on all manner of multiple choice standardized tests with similar outcomes. In my opinion, they show more clearly the flaws of the teacher, not the student. Too many assignments are given where mastering a single manipulation is enough to score well. The mindless repetition sometimes strengthens one neural pathway while excluding others. We must be careful that students are learning what we are trying to teach, and not some short-cut that eludes our watch.

I'm not calling for simply more word problems or some New Age brand of reform learning. I'm just saying that sometimes all the numbers and symbols and syntax get in the way of the actual math. Maybe we should try mixing in a few more watchamacallits and see what happens.

When am I Ever Going to Use This?

For all my teacher friends looking for a cache of ready-made answers to this commonly asked question, I recommend having a look at these "real world" movies at the Futures Channel. Each video is of excellent quality and comes with a student/teacher lesson for download.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Free Agency

Have you ever been a die hard fan of a perpetually losing sports franchise? Have you felt the pain of losing your most talented players to teams with more money and a better shot at a championship? Well that same kind of gut-wrenching loss being felt in city schools nationwide.

Recent initiatives to entice competent math and science teachers has led to a new kind of "school choice" scenario. Teachers in poorer urban districts, tired of being underpaid and under-appreciated, are being gently wooed by suburban schools with more money left under their salary caps. This is exactly the kind of market capitalism that those voucher programs are always failing to provide for students. Imagine if we pushed the sports metaphor further. What if we had some kind of draft lottery, whereby the poorest performing schools can secure the most promising up and comers for the first few years of their careers, before they even have an option at free agency? Then schools would be forced to better support their first and second year teachers. Or what if administrators could broker trades, sending two or three mediocre educators to outlying districts for a really choice pick from another school? That would keep teachers on their toes.

I don't know about everybody else, but I'm ready to try just about an change to the system that will bring in and retain more passionate, well-rounded, and knowledgeable teachers. Although I doubt that we'll be seeing teacher trading cards or bobble-heads any time soon.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

To Cogitate and Solve

One of my favorite PBS series of all time was Square One, a sketch comedy show devoted to making math fun. The highlight of the show was Mathnet, a parody of Dragnet in which Detective Monday and his partner solve crimes using their mathematical knowledge.

At the time, I thought it was just a funny show. Now I realize that it isn't far from the truth.

Experts in mathematics are regularly employed by all branches of law enforcement. Much of this occurs behind the scenes, but can be absolutely essential. Many cases hinge on purely mathematical evidence. But how exactly has this trend affected our justice system? The adversarial legal model that we brought with us from merry old England didn't exactly have a place for what we would today consider "expert testimony." A new book from the author of The Math Gene seeks to tackle that question.

Keith Devlin and Gary Lorden, the Caltech professor who serves as adviser for the hit CBS series Numb3rs, are co-authoring entitled The Numbers behind Numb3rs: Solving Crimes with Mathematics. Judging from what I know of the works of both authors, this should make for a fascinating read.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

When in the Course of Human Events...

I searched far and wide for just the right topic or story to discuss on America's birthday. There's a lot to pick from these days. There's the commutation and probable pardon of convicted Bushie Scooter Libby. There's the on-going war in Iraq, where an apparently unforseeable counter-insurgency is being compared to our own upstart beginnings. And since this is a forum devoted to education, there's always the continuing debate over accountability or the increasingly polarizing "math wars." But none of that really captures the then-and-now dichotomy of our great nation as well as this.

“I think it represents actually, well, America — what New York is. It’s something you expect from a city like this.”

What is this uniquely American event? Why it's Nathan's Famous hot dog eating contest, of course. In a world where myriad people starve to death each day, no city represents the spectrum of wealth better than the Big Apple. While people live in the shadows of the subway tunnels or lie helpless in alleyways, a few iron-stomached hopefuls gather at Coney Island in celebration of gluttony, where the sin which may well prove deadliest for our American empire will unleash itself approximately 4 hours after this posting.

“Independence Day is a wonderful time to celebrate our freedoms,” the mayor said, looking rather summery in boat shoes and lightweight slacks. “Now I don’t know what the founding fathers ever thought about this, but the right to eat as many hot dogs as possible — although not expressly named in the Bill of Rights — was no doubt on the minds of the framers.”

The over-eating metaphors abound. In a country where despite medical advances, the current generation may have a shorter life-expectancy than the last due to the epidemic of obesity, our figurative fattiness threatens to undermine this experiment in democracy. We thumb our noses at the famished as we choke down our hot dogs. We laugh in the face of the energy deprived, as we root for stock cars besplattered with the emblems of capitalistic excess as they drive in circles to our delight. When will it be enough? At what point will we be able to push back from the table and say when?

It's hard not to be a hypocrite. Like everyone else, I've grown accustomed to having what I want, when I want it, and more of it than I could possibly need. But if ever I need to be reminded of where that line of selfish behavior leads, I can always take the D, F, Q, or N trains to Coney Island, where the swallowing whole of processed beef entrails is now considered athletic, and the smell of sweat and frankfurters barely masks the scent of Rome burning.

Monday, July 2, 2007

One Stop Shopping

Obviously I am a fan of math and science videos. I mean, who isn't? But sometimes when I am watching a posting on YouTube or Metacafe, I wonder about the reliability of the video. Well there is a new video search engine out called ScienceHack. It alleges that every video is screened for accuracy by a scientist before it is posted. Of course, there's no mention of who that scientist is, or what his or her credentials may be. Still, I perused it a little and was quite impressed. The site is obviously in its infancy, but I think we can expect big things as it grows.

Cultural Literacy

There was an AmEx commercial a few years ago starring Jerry Seinfeld. It opened with a scene of the comedian bombing on a Great Britain stage. His brand of "did you ever notice" cultural humor wasn't playing well abroad. So he studiously toured the streets, diligently observing the everyman, picking up the lingo. By the end, he had his audience in stitches.

I want to use this commercial as an example of how important cultural literacy is in teaching. There has been a lot of discussion and a more surprising degree of argument at Dy/Dan in the past month concerning the usefulness of television in teaching. What the debate boiled down to was one of cultural literacy. Dan's point, and for one so seemingly obvious it was wildly misinterpreted, was that a teacher who voluntarily excludes themselves from the culture of the students is cutting themselves down at the knees. (Perhaps I made that opinion clear by the very fact of referencing a television commercial.) Many of the comments in opposition voiced concerns about the dumbing-down effects of television as a medium. They seemed to feel that it was somehow beneath them, and they had no qualms about turning up their erudite noses at the thought of even the slightest familiarity with its many offerings. The counterpoint was made several times that TV is one of myriad tools at our disposal and that like all tools it depends upon the skills and discretions of its operator, a point which Dan again drives home in this recent post.

When I first graduated from college, I took a job with a direct marketing firm. I was basically a door to door salesman, working on straight commission and doing nothing but cold calls. I was good at it and found it enjoyable for a brief time. One of my best tricks was to read the front page of each section of the newspaper each day. Then when I was with customers I could size them up and competently discuss a current event of interest to them. Usually, this ended up being Tennessee Volunteer football. It is important to point out that even though I am a graduate of the University of Tennessee and lived in the athletic dorm, I despise the sound of Rocky Top, I hate the color orange, and really couldn't care less about football in general. But how much selling do you think I would have done if I shared that with my customers? Probably about as much as some of those "too good for tv" teachers can teach.

I watch a lot of TV. I always have. I also see almost every movie that Hollywood releases. I have a kind of rating system based on the previews that tells me whether to pay full price, see a matine, Netflix it, or wait until it's on tv. I end up seeing 3-4 a month in the theatre, 30 a month via Netflix, and probably 5 on tv. I still find time to read 8-10 books a month ranging in topics from assisted reproduction to graph theory to tort reform. Most of this voracious appetite is made possible by the fact that I don't yet have a family or a terribly demanding job, which leaves me the time to pursue all of this. Many teachers simply don't have the time to swallow as much of the culture as I do. But it's important enough to make as much time as they can. If you can't speak the same language as your students, how can you teach them anything?

There's always talk about the generation gap, but I don't believe it's a necessary thing. It is a conscious choice a person makes to grow obsolete, to stop participating in the conversation of culture. If you decide that your music, books, movies, sports heroes, and sitcom stars were better than today's, well that's certainly your right to do. But you should expect your students to return your disrespect and disinterest when you try to share your algebra, biology, and literature. Whether you are a teacher, salesman, or stand-up comedian, your success with your intended audience has everything to do with your knowledge of its culture.